It was morning in Madrid and the IFEMA Convention Center was alive with activity, occasioned by an art fair opening scheduled for that evening, with attendees to include such luminaries as Spain's King Juan Carlos and Mexican President Vicente Fox.

The activity came to a sudden halt at approximately 9:30 a.m. when a car, packed with about 50 pounds of explosives, blew up nearby, blowing out windows, damaging cars, and injuring 45 people. It was the work of the Basque separatist group ETA — another reminder that terrorism continues to be a fact of life in the 21st century.

It also served notice to Mary Keough-Anderson, CMP, CMM, manager of conference and meeting management at Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. in Boston. The February 2005 blast occurred just a short distance from her company's Madrid office, and with a high-level meeting for company executives scheduled for that city seven months later, she immediately went into action, consulting with the company's director of security to ensure that Liberty Mutual's meeting would be as safe and as free of risk as possible. Keough-Anderson, along with Liberty Mutual's risk-management team, “did our due diligence,” she says. “We took added precautions and it was worth every penny.”

Doing Due Diligence

For any meeting, particularly those in international destinations, meeting planners have become increasingly concerned with issues of safety and risk management. “It's paramount,” says Keough-Anderson, who has been with Liberty Mutual for 27 years, the last five of which she's spent working on international meetings.

Whether it's choosing a destination, a hotel, or a venue for an off-site event, the key, says Keough-Anderson, is doing due diligence.

Liberty Mutual typically holds an international incentive program every two years — London in 2004, Greece in 2006, and Italy in 2008 — for about 60 top producers and their guests. While Keough-Anderson is always mindful of which destinations might appeal to potential qualifiers because of their location, history, sightseeing opportunities, and other reasons, her most immediate site-selection priority is addressing issues of safety and security for those destinations. “We do due diligence before [discussion of potential sites] even goes to senior management,” Keough-Anderson says.

Beginning at this early due-diligence stage — and up until the time the actual meeting takes place — Keough-Anderson works closely with Liberty Mutual's corporate risk-management department, which initially gleans intelligence ranging from crime and public safety statistics, to the extent of anti-American sentiment, for destinations that are under consideration.

“Corporate risk management is an extension of our meeting planning team for corporate events,” says Keough-Anderson. “We must take into consideration factors like political upheaval, war or the threat of war, terrorist activity, anti-American sentiment, infectious disease, and World Health Organization advisories. Doing due diligence when selecting a site for an international program has never been so important.”

Documenting Risk

Once the destination has been selected, Keough-Anderson works even more closely with the corporate risk-management department when choosing hotels and event venues. One of their key evaluation tools is the Liberty Mutual Group Function/Event Risk Assessment Questionnaire. A nine-page document, it's actually been in use, unchanged, for at least 20 years, says Keough-Anderson, and it is used for most of Liberty Mutual's meetings and incentive programs. (Keough-Anderson's department plans up to 300 meetings a year.)

Hotels, whether longtime providers or under consideration by Liberty Mutual for the first time, willingly participate in the risk-assessment process, notes Keough-Anderson, and not just because it is necessary to get the insurance giant's business. “It not only serves to protect the safety of our attendees, but the safety of all the other hotel guests as well.”

With this document in hand, Keough-Anderson and Liberty Mutual's corporate risk-management department are able to evaluate just about everything relating to a venue's safety, including the security structure, access to medical care, natural disaster issues, and fire safety.

The latter issue is extremely important for international meetings, because many overseas venues may not meet American standards — they'll be without sprinkler systems, or smoke detectors for example. Being aware of the issues, and asking the questions upfront, is critical, Keough-Anderson says, “because it's too late after the contract has been signed.”

Site Inspection Guidelines

A venue under consideration by Liberty Mutual will complete the document, which is then reviewed and analyzed by Keough-Anderson and Liberty Mutual's risk-management team. “It becomes a basis of discussion,” Keough-Anderson notes, adding that a hotel may not be able to meet a certain standard, but through supplementation, such as hiring additional security or having an ambulance constantly present on site, deficiencies can be overcome.

The completed questionnaire is used by Liberty Mutual planners during site inspection visits — which, in the case of international incentive programs, are conducted by both Keough-Anderson and Liberty Mutual's security team, with the initial visit typically held at least two years in advance of the event. When evaluating potential hotels for the 2008 meeting in Italy, for example, Liberty Mutual's security chief met with security personnel at hotels under consideration, as well as with police officials in Rome and along the Amalfi Coast. It's at that point (a minimum of two years out) that the security team will put together a report making recommendations about all potential venues — not only hotels but places such as private yachts or restaurants being considered for off-site events. The report includes additional steps Liberty Mutual can take to make these venues even more secure.

As meeting dates get closer, the risk-management team again accompanies Keough-Anderson on a pre-event site visit about three months before the program, continuing to be heavily involved in decision-making up until the time of the actual meeting, and keeping tabs on the conditions in the host country. Keough-Anderson will make adjustments to the program based on her risk-management team's recommendations.

Seven Tips for Safe Meetings

Follow these tips to mitigate risk at international meetings, says Mary Keough-Anderson, manager of conference and meeting management at Liberty Mutual Insurance Co.

  1. Be aware of cultural differences and adjust your crisis management plan to take these cultural differences into account. Don't forget to factor in language barriers as well.

  2. Keep tabs on world events — The U.S. Department of State (www.state.gov) is a key resource, providing updated security alerts and travel advisories.
  3. Develop a close relationship with a local destination marketing company that can provide you with current information should a crisis arise. Your DMC is an invaluable resource.
  4. Photocopy personal information from your attendees' passports before they leave home.
  5. Maintain a low profile while traveling. Do not post your events on a hotel reader board or at airports. Do not wear or display corporate or U.S. logos.
  6. Prepare a medical emergency plan — Liberty Mutual uses a company called Medaire (www.medaire.com), and there are many others as well.
  7. Another form of risk not related to safety and security issues involves managing foreign currency exchange. Consider setting up a foreign-exchange risk-management plan, using currency forward contracts, that will allow you to purchase a specific amount of foreign currency at the current rate of exchange for delivery on a certain date.

Your Risk Management Questionnaire

As a matter of course, Liberty Mutual requires hotels and other prospective meeting venues to fill out its risk-management assessment questionnaire. Here are some of the questions addressed in the nine-page document:

Security Issues:

  • Does the property have 24-hour on-site security personnel? (If, not, consider hiring additional security.)
  • Are employees screened for criminal history backgrounds?
  • What is the local crime rate for the community as a whole in the site neighborhood? (Check with the local police department, if necessary.)
  • Are there any current threats against the property, its employees, or the owners?
  • Does the front desk give out guest room information, such as name and room number?

International Travel:

  • If traveling abroad, are there any State Department advisory bulletins regarding this country/province/city?
  • What is the exchange condition between the local currency and U.S.currency?

Natural Disaster Issues:

  • Where is an area of safe refuge in the event of high winds, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, etc.?
  • Is the facility designated as an evacuation center for the local area in the case of a natural disaster?

Fire Protection Issues:

  • Is the entire site protected by an operating automatic sprinkler system?
  • Is there an evacuation-plan drawing of each sleeping room and meeting room?
  • Do fire alarms alert the local fire department directly? If not, how soon after an internal alarm are they notified?
  • What is the local fire department's average response time?